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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Find the latest in world literature here!

This week, join our wonderful Asymptote staff members, Barbara, Rachael, and Nina, as they bring you literary updates from Albania, Spain, and the United States. From prestigious national literary awards to new and noteworthy titles and translations, there is plenty to discover in this week’s dispatches. 

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large for Albania, reporting from Albania:

December was a productive month for Albanian publishers, a natural result of the conclusion of the Tirana Book Fair and the expected increase in book sales that marks the holiday period. On December 18, 2018, the Albanian Ministry of Culture conferred the National Award for Literature for the best books published in 2017. Henrik Spiro Gjoka won the “Best Novel” award for his work Sonatë për gruan e një tjetri (A Sonnet for Another Man’s Wife), which details the life of a psychiatrist who falls in love with one of his patients. Translator Aida Baro won the “Best Translated Novel” award for her rendition into Albanian of Primo Levi’s The Truce (translated into English by Stuart J. Woolf), the continuation of Levi’s autobiography, If This is a Man.

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Under the Microscope: Theatre in Translation

Translated theatre can be transformative, while putting both source and target cultures under the microscope.

As a theatre translator and researcher working in London, the work that I create is motivated by a desire to enable British audiences to engage with a particular voice, author, theme, perspective, or situation from another country and culture. I seek to facilitate this in multiple ways through academic scholarship, through study in the classroom, and through rehearsal and performance. My translation decisions are informed by a process of in-depth analysis in which I ask the following questions: how might a text resonate in a local context, for example, in Britain today? What are the links between source and target culture that enable a play to become mobile? How can dialogue begin on stage and then extend into the audience, sparking new conversations, in a new context?

In 2017 I completed the translation of two plays; Ready or Not (Punto y Coma) by Uruguayan dramatist, Estela Golovchenko, and Summer in December (Verano en diciembre) by Spanish dramatist, Carolina Africa Martín. In Ready or Not, a young girl is separated from both of her parents during the period of intense military repression (1973-1985) in Uruguay and then later reunited with her father, who is a political activist turned Senator. They clash over their political views, their ways of remembering the past, and their roles in the present. In Summer in December, a family of six women is faced with seemingly small everyday dilemmas of worrying about what their neighbours might think about them, whether the food in the fridge has passed its sell-by date, and the latest diet fad. However, the play goes on to address much more significant concerns about new and old relationships, unplanned pregnancies, and what should happen to an ageing relative with dementia.

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#ReadWomen: A Focus for 2019—And Beyond

What was activism and new awareness has become habit and daily practice.

It’s been five years since I wrote for the Asymptote blog about my resolution to read only books by women for a year, and nearly five years since British author Joanna Walsh created the #readwomen2014 hashtag on Twitter. Around the same time, Walsh also started the @read_women Twitter account, which gained more than 25,000 followers. The account, which Walsh maintained with the help of several other people, was retired on June 16, 2018, after four and a half years online.

Walsh’s efforts sparked a worldwide movement among readers, activists, bookstores, and publishers that gained worldwide press coverage. The tag evolved to #readwomen as people continued to share the names of underappreciated writers and discuss ways to balance the literary scales that have been tipped for centuries against women. As novelist Alexander Chee wrote in an October 2014 essay for The New York Times Book Review, “Walsh’s hashtag became a rallying cry for equal treatment for women writers,” and the movement’s aim of calling out gender bias in publishing and the general public’s reading habits was, as he saw it, “for everyone.”

Near the five-year anniversary of the #readwomen movement, I wanted to look for signs of potential progress for literary fiction by women. What’s changed since 2013? Have conditions improved for literature created by women and those who identify as women or non-binary? What follows is a very brief, scattershot survey of notable points around these questions, a sketch of a small corner of the global picture from my limited perspective. READ MORE…

My 2018: Barbara Halla

It would be a lie to say that I don’t seek stories written by women about what it feels like to live as a woman.

Barbara Halla, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Albania, walks us through her reading list for 2018, a diverse set of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books by women writers. Along the way, she reflects on feminist theory, the beauty of contemplative essays, and the power of collective memoirs.

Anyone who has had the (mis)fortune of following me on Twitter knows I am a dedicated disciple of Elena Ferrante. So, when I found out that Edizioni E/O had published an extended literary analysis of her work, I risked missing my flight by rushing to my favourite Milan bookstore (Rizzoli) to buy a copy.

Tiziana de Rogatis is an Italian professor of Comparative Literature, and her book Elena Ferrante. Parole Chiave (Elena Ferrante. Key Terms, not yet available in English) is exactly the kind of book my nerdy heart needed: an investigation into the literary and philosophical works underpinning Ferrante’s literary creations. I think it’s important to note that a great part of Ferrante’s appeal is in her ability to shore her works into a lived reality, one that does not require an extensive knowledge of Italian history, or feminist theory, to be appreciated fully. In fact, with the slight exception perhaps of her collection of essays and interviews Frantumaglia (translated by Ann Goldstein), you lose absolutely nothing if you go into it with little context. That being said, de Rogatis does a fantastic job at explicitly laying out and connecting Ferrante’s text to the literary foundation upon which they were built, her analysis a sort of Ariadne’s thread helping the reader through the labyrinth of Ferrante’s writing. Ferrante borrows heavily from Greek and Latin mythology, like Euripides’ Medea or Virgil’s The Aeneid. Many of the struggles her women experience and the way they think about those struggles can be mapped directly onto various modern feminist texts, including Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. Hopefully Europa Editions will translate this book, too, because it is essential reading if you are even mildly obsessed with Ferrante. I am currently re-reading the series and am amazed at how much de Rogatis’s work enriched my understanding: Elena Greco, for example, uses the word “subaltern” frequently throughout the Quartet.

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Festive Reads: Holiday Writing from Around the World

The Christmas season can be oppressive in everything from familial expectation to brow-beating advertising to relentless good cheer.

For many of us, Christmas is a time for gathering with family, giving gifts, and singing carols. For others, however, the holiday isn’t a snowy Love Actually postcard scene; in some parts of the world, it features tropical weather and end-of-year department store sales, while in others, it’s a just a regular day. You’ve read the blog’s Summer Ennui reading recommendations, and now we’re back with a list of our favorite Christmastime reads from Assistant Managing Editor Rachael Pennington, Communications Manager Alexander Dickow, and Editors-at-Large Alice Inggs and Barbara Halla.

Alice Inggs, Editor-at-Large for South Africa

Picture this: it’s December 25 in South Africa and there is drought somewhere in the country. Farmers pray for rain, sink boreholes, shoot dying sheep. The acacia in the bushveld to the north is bone-white and the grass invites fire. The heat is a white heat and cattle bones glare in the sun. The paint on Father Christmas statues outside shopping centres begins to melt and pine cuttings out of water droop. Tempers crackle and flare. The roads are too busy and the accident death toll climbs. White-robed umnazaretha worshipping in the open veld stand out against the brown-grey earth. It is hot and bleak and houses are full because all the family came to visit.

“It is a dry, white season” begins South African Black Consciousness writer Mongane Wally Serote’s poem “For Don M. — Banned.” It was written in the early 1970s for Don Mattera, a Xhosa-Italian poet and friend of Serote’s who had been banned by the apartheid government. The first line of Serote’s poem was later borrowed by Afrikaner André Brink for his 1979 novel ’n Droë Wit Seisoen (A Dry White Season). The book was banned too, as well as a subsequent film adaptation starring Zakes Mokae and Donald Sutherland. It’s been two and a half decades since those laws were repealed and the cultural whitewash acknowledged, but that line—“It is a dry, white season”—still echoes through summer in South Africa, the season in which Christmas falls; a reminder of the oppressive atmosphere that back then was not limited to the months when the temperature climbed.

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My 2018: Nina Perrotta

As a resident of Brazil, I made it a point to read books by Latin American women in their original languages.

In today’s post, Assistant Blog Editor Nina Perrotta reflects on the many books that accompanied her during a year abroad in Brazil, ranging from classic Japanese novels to contemporary fiction in translation.

Early in 2018, as I was preparing to move to Brazil, I picked up a faded old book from my parents’ bookshelf. Junichirō Tanizaki’s classic novel The Makioka Sisters, originally published in serial form in the mid-1940s, follows four sisters, two of whom are in need of husbands, as they navigate their own altered fortune and the clash between tradition and modernity in inter-war Japan. There’s nothing I love more than a really long novel, and this one, for me, was an ideal blend of familiar (the Jane Austen-style plot) and different (the specifics of Japanese society in that era, which I knew little about). In hindsight, it was probably my favorite of all the books I read this year.

As soon as I finished The Makioka Sisters, I started The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (who, notably, was shortlisted for Literary Review’s “Bad Sex in Fiction” award this year). Though the two novels were written nearly a half-century apart and have little in common, I enjoyed reading them back-to-back, especially since one of Murakami’s characters, who would have been a contemporary of the Makioka sisters, tells war stories from his time in the Japanese army during World War II.

As my trip to Brazil drew nearer, I rushed through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and, fortunately for my suitcase, managed to finish it just before I had to leave for the airport. Once at my gate, I got started on Charles Dickens’ massive Bleak House, which I had tried—and failed—to read once before. I promised myself that I would finish it this time, no matter how long it took. And so I spent the next two months carrying Bleak House around the streets of Curitiba, Brazil, reading it on the sunny couch in my apartment, and occasionally using it as a yoga block (it was about the right size).

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Asymptote Podcast: International Blacknesses

Poet and comparatist Aaron Coleman on translation as a tool for making vivid the relationships between Afro-descendants around the world

“I felt myself in translation all the time.”

Podcast Editor Layla Benitez-James sits down via Google Hangouts with poet and translator Aaron Coleman in this third and final installment of interviews inspired by John Keene’s essay Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness. In October’s conversation with Keene and our previous podcast with Lawrence Schimel, we explored the more radical social possibilities of translation. Our discussion continues with Coleman, a Fulbright Scholar and recipient of the 2017 Philip K. Jansen Memorial Fellowship, awarded to outstanding translators of color. He joins us to talk about his studies in international Blacknesses, interpreting on the red carpet at the MTV Music Awards in Madrid, and playing basketball in Extremadura. Tune in for this and much, much more!

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your weekly literary news from around the world.

This week, we remember a prolific Catalan novelist and celebrate the achievements—including prizes, publications and a Ph.D.—of Indigenous writers from Mexico, Colombia and Australia.

Tiffany Tsao, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Australia

In October, Australian literary magazine The Lifted Brow announced that their fortieth issue would be produced entirely by a First Nations collective of writers, artists, editors, academics, and activists. The cover and contributors for the issue, which was titled Blak Brow, were revealed in late November. The issue launched on Wednesday, December 12th, at the Footscray Community Arts Centre in Melbourne, and is also now available to be ordered.

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The Anxiety of Translation: A Conversation between Ilan Stavans and Robert Croll

From a translator’s viewpoint (at least, from this translator), the best author is a dead author. That absence is a form of freedom.

Translation, by definition, is about dislocation. By traveling from one culture to another, our rootedness is turned on its head. In this dialogue on translation and anxiety, Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities, Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of NPR’s podcast “In Contrast,” and Robert Croll, translator of Ricardo Piglia’s three-volume The Diaries of Emilio Renzi (Restless Books, 2017–20), ponder the responsibility the translator has toward the original text, the discoveries of how unstable the target language is, and the realization that translation is an essentially destabilizing experience.

Robert Croll: For me, the act of translation always involves an underlying anxiety: my feeling of responsibility toward the original text, which is bound to the knowledge that my words will be taken to represent the author’s intentions, leads to a constant fear of being discovered as an impostor. But can experience in translation destabilize the way we read texts in their original languages?

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

The first ever Asymptote Book Club meet-up took place this week! Find out more, and read about news from El Salvador, in these dispatches.

In this week’s dispatches, we cover Salvadoran literary news and a special Asymptote event! We begin in London, where members of the Asymptote Book Club came together to chat about our fall book selections—and much more. From there, we delve into updates from El Salvador, including the death of a renowned poet and a women’s literary gathering.

Marina Sofia, Marketing Manager, reporting from the UK

One of the downsides of working for an international literary journal is that our volunteers and readers are scattered all over the world, so in-person gatherings are a rarity. It was therefore all the more special to see members of the Asymptote Book Club in London on November 29 at our first ever meet-up. Designed to be an informal drop-in event to celebrate our first anniversary, it included a quick tour of the current Rights for Women exhibition at the Senate House Library, followed by a discussion over drinks at the recently-opened Waterstones bookshop on Tottenham Court Road. Although we had to compete with a parallel (and noisy) event, our spirits were undampened as we discussed the surprisingly pulpy historical fiction of Ahmet Altan (October’s title) and the acrobatic linguistic challenges of translating Thai writer Prabda Yoon (September’s title). It was a great opportunity to see what readers thought we were getting right (diverse selection of genres, languages and countries; high literary quality) and what they would like to see more of (questions for online discussion; face-to-face events, perhaps including publishers). Thank you to all who ventured out on a windy and rainy evening and contributed to the lively debates!

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We Can All Be Walking Poets: Sauntering Verse and Dada

“Walking artists walk to create something. So actually, you could argue that you are the walking artist.”

Sauntering Verse, a new app for auto-generated poetry, uses Dadaist language to redefine the experience of physical space. In this essay, Lara Norgaard tests the app while reflecting on its implications for our relationship with technology, and the art that it creates. What contexts do we bring to the art we create and consume? What does it mean to be an artist when art is made possible just by taking your phone on a walk?

It is warm and cloudy on the afternoon following the first round of Brazil’s presidential election. The extreme right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro received just over 46% of the popular vote—he would come to win the run-off election just weeks later. It feels like the world I woke up to earlier that morning was not precisely my own, as if a body-snatcher stole my world instead of my skin.

The day is a blur: I walk a few meters from the living room to the kitchen in my apartment. Outside the window, the skyline of nearly identical high-rises in the Brazilian city that I call home glint in clouded sadness, weighed down by more than 186 thousand people who voted for a man whom The New Yorker has called a cross between Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte. Perhaps he will not win in the second round, but perhaps what is already bad will get worse. This eventuality feels so surreal that I focus on boiling water for a calming mug of coffee. I glance down at my phone. It wrote me a poem:

She skipped it

A rear Jesus

They of them

The sagging can retract or sagging sagging

A quirky staging

She pots him

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Meet the Publisher: Feminist Press’ Lauren Rosemary Hook on Feminist Writing in Translation

Now that Trump is president, people are like, “of course we need a feminist press.” But five years ago people were really questioning why.

Since 1970, Feminist Press has made it its mission to publish marginalized voices and authors writing about issues of equality and gender identity. From the start, founder Florence Howe focused on publishing works in translation from around the world alongside feminist classics by local writers. Almost fifty years later, the press’s catalogue continues to reflect these priorities. Senior editor Lauren Rosemary Hook spoke to Sarah Moses, Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for Argentina, about the press’s approach to publishing in the current political climate, acquiring works from different countries, and titles in translation that readers can be on the lookout for.

Sarah Moses: How did Feminist Press get started?

Lauren Rosemary Hook: We were founded in 1970 by an English professor named Florence Howe. It was very much a reaction to the few women’s studies courses that were popping up at the time. I feel like that’s something we take for granted—women’s and gender studies—now that programs are available at every university. But I can count on only one hand how many there were across the country then, so it was a very tight-knit group. There was a lot of talk about how there weren’t many texts available by women—besides Emily Dickinson—especially in literature, and Florence was a part of this dialogue. A lot of feminist professors and activists at the time met up and Florence went away on vacation and came back and she had all these checks in her mailbox made out to the Feminist Press, and she was like, “I’m doing this?” It’s a really fascinating story.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Join us as we dive into the latest in literary news!

In this week’s dispatches, we travel to Hong Kong to remember wuxia writer, Jin Yong, who passed away late in October. More recently, Hong Kong played host to an international literary festival that was unfortunately plagued by controversy. Elsewhere, National Novel Writing Month kicks off in the UK, even as two large publishing houses begin outreach initiatives, and another lands itself in a Twitter controversy.

Charlie Ng, Editor-At-Large, reporting from Hong Kong

In recent weeks, Hong Kong’s literary scene has been clouded by loss and anxiety. On October 30th, the prominent Hong Kong martial arts fiction writer Jin Yong passed away. His oeuvre of fifteen fictional works spawned numerous film and TV adaptations, and even popular computer games widely played by young and old alike in the Sinophone world. The Jin Yong Gallery at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum has set up a condolence point for the public to commemorate the wuxia fiction master from November 13th to 30th.

At the same time, this year’s Hong Kong International Literary Festival took place from November 2nd to 11th. The festival experienced an unexpected setback when the main venue provider, the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts, abruptly decided to cancel the venues for two talks involving Chinese dissident writer Ma Jian, namely “Hong Kong through the Lens of Literature” and “Ma Jian: China Dream”. The English translation of Ma’s most recent work, China Dream, has just been published by Penguin Random House, while the original Chinese version is forthcoming from a Taiwanese publisher. The cancellation provoked a fierce reaction from local literary and cultural circles. PEN Hong Kong issued a statement to express the organisation’s concern over Tai Kwun’s self-censorship and its threat to Hong Kong’s freedom of speech. Tai Kwun finally withdrew the cancellation and restored the events.

One of the festival’s panels, “Hong Kong through the Lens of Literature” (moderated by Asymptote’s Editor-At-Large for Hong Kong, Charlie Ng), featured a vibrant conversation between Hong Kong writers Ng Mei-kwan, Hon Lai-chu, and Ma Jian on the current state of Hong Kong literature and its possible future developments. The three writers affirmed the uniqueness of Hong Kong literature as a varied body of creative writing that expresses Hong Kong’s identity and experience and is shaped by special historical and linguistic contexts. In the nearly-cancelled “Ma Jian: China Dream” panel, Ma also engaged in a dialogue with moderator Maura Cunningham about his satirical dystopian novel China Dream, which presents a scathing portrait of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s grand vision of national greatness.

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What I Learned: The Benefits of a Poetry Translation Workshop

Unlike in life, in translation you can generally decide what you can bear to lose, and you should know that there are multiple methods.

What should a budding translator read? What kinds of critical lenses should he or she apply to the process of translation? Assistant Editor Andreea Scridon shares some insights she gathered from the poetry translation workshop she attended this summer in Norwich, UK.

Every summer, the University of East Anglia in Norwich (home of the first Creative Writing program in the United Kingdom) holds an International Literary Translation & Creative Writing Summer School. This past July, the program was held in partnership with the British Centre for Literary Translation, and I attended the multilingual poetry translation workshopled by internationally translated poet and writer Fiona Sampsonas an emerging translator of Romanian and Spanish into English. Below I recount musings on the most significant things I learned, which I hope will be of use to those potentially looking to break into literary translation.

A sound starting point in this discussion is the question of considering what to read as a translator. It should go without saying that a literary translator must necessarily be a well-read person in order to be able to make the best possible choices in terms of context, likely more so than anybody else. Having established this as a point of consensus, we discussed, both officially in workshops and amongst ourselves, what exactly a translator should be reading today. In my opinion, the library of a(n) (aspiring) literary translator should include contemporary literature, non-contemporary literature (both classics and obscure-but-lovely older works), and, of course, translations, preferably in as many languages as possible. For instance, examples of each subsection in my current library include Lauren Groff’s Florida and Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart (which are English-language works but useful examples of the spirit of today’s literary scene), Romain Gary’s The Kites and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, and Anna Akhmatova’s various poetry collections in translation by Yevgeny Bonver, Richard McKane, and Alexander Cigale, to name only a few. I asked Ian Gwin, an emerging translator of Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian who also participated in the Summer School, for suggestions. He recommends Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country, noting that Gessen is himself a bilingual and that the theme of the two cultures meeting within the novel may be useful for a translator to consider. Regarding multiple translations, he recommends Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, pinning the more linguistically faithful translation of Eithne Wilkins and Ernest Kaiser against the newer one produced by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. He also suggests the high-quality recent translation of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz by Michael Hoffman, citing it as a long work that shows an attempt to render a specific style in a second language.

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